Wealth That Concentrates Kills

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

The weight of the wealth that sits at the top of America’s economic order isn’t just squeezing dollars out of the wallets of average Americans. That concentrated wealth is shearing years off of American lives.

The latest evidence for that squeeze on American wallets comes from the Census Bureau. Researchers there have just released results from their latest annual sampling of U.S. incomes. In 2018, the new Census stats show, incomes for typical American households saw a “marked slowdown.”

In effect, average Americans have spent this entire century on a treadmill getting nowhere fast. The nation’s median — most typical — households pocketed 2.3 percent fewer real dollars in 2018 than they earned in 2000.

The “vast majority” of American households, note Economic Policy Institute analysts Elise Gould and Julia Wolfe, “have still not fully recovered from the deep losses suffered in the Great Recession.”

America’s most affluent households have been having no such problem. Average top 5 percent incomes have increased 13 percent overall since 2000, to $416,520. The new Census Bureau figures, based on a sampling of U.S. households, tell us that top 5 percenters are now collecting 23.1 percent of the nation’s household income.

But these Census Bureau figures significantly understate just how much income America’s richest are annually grabbing, mainly because Census researchers “top code” high incomes to keep the identity of sampled deep pockets confidential. All incomes above fixed top-code levels get recorded at the top code. These levels have changed over the years, but the Census Bureau’s continuing reliance on top coding leaves us with figures that fudge the real extent of our inequality.

Analyses based on other data sources — like IRS tax return records — show that top 1 percenters alone are pulling down over 20 percent of America’s household income, essentially triple the top 1 percent income share of a half-century ago.

What impact is this top-heavy distribution of America’s income having on Americans of modest means? Increasing inequality, a just-released Government Accountability Office study makes clear, is killing many of us off before our time.

This new GAO research tracks how life has played out for Americans who happened to be between 51 and 61 years old in 1992.

Americans with household wealth that placed them in that age cohort’s most affluent 20 percent, the GAO found, did fairly well over the next two decades plus. Over three-quarters of them — 75.5 percent — went on to find themselves still alive and kicking in 2014, the most recent year with full stats available.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, a different story. Among Americans in the poorest 20 percent of this age group, under half — 47.6 percent — were still waking up in 2014. In other words, the poorest of the Americans the GAO studied had just a 50-50 chance of living into 2014. The most affluent had three chances in four.

“The inequality of life expectancy,” as economist Gabriel Zucman puts it, “is exploding in the U.S.”

The new GAO numbers ought to surprise no one. We’ve seen over the past quarter-century a steady stream of research studies that show consistent links between rising inequality and shorter lifespans.

And mortality trends in the United States reflect similar dynamics worldwide wherever income and wealth are concentrating. The more unequal a society becomes, the less healthy the society. The nations with the narrowest gaps between rich and poor turn out to have the longest lifespans.

The Government Accountability Office, an independent nonpartisan agency that services Congress, conducted its new inequality research after a request from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). He draws a simple lesson from the GAO’s sobering new numbers.

“We must put an end to the obscene income and wealth inequality in our country,” Sanders noted after the GAO report’s September 9 release. “If we do not urgently act to solve the economic distress of millions of Americans, a whole generation will be condemned to early death.”

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Reposted from Our Future

Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the online weekly on excess and inequality. He is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Last year, he played an active role on the team that generated The Nation magazine special issue on extreme inequality. That issue recently won the 2009 Hillman Prize for magazine journalism. Pizzigati’s latest book, Greed and Good: Understanding and Overcoming the Inequality that Limits Our Lives (Apex Press, 2004), won an “outstanding title” of the year ranking from the American Library Association’s Choice book review journal.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Campaign for America's Future

Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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